Archive for Gene Hackman

Stockyard Churning

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2015 by dcairns

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PRIME CUT, an atypical Michael Ritchie film, keeps throwing up WTF moments that keep you watching, alright. The opening slaughterhouse sequence makes you quite anxious that you’re going to see real cows get killed onscreen, but instead shows you something far more peculiar.

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The next cow in line for slaughter has a naked person draped over it. Said person is then rendered down into sausage-meat and mailed to Chicago. The film’s theme is this established in quite a visceral way: Is man no more than this?

Then Lee Marvin is brought in by the mobbed-up Chicago meat industry to take care of some dissident criminals in the Kansas meat industry, who turn out to be led by Gene Hackman. Marvin in this flick is a lot like Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s Parker character, who he sort-of played already in POINT BLANK, only Parker was always an independent operator and Marvin here is strictly for-hire.

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Anyhow, with a group of associates, Marvin drives to Kansas and starts teasing the sleeping tiger that is Gene Hackman, until things eventually get bloody. And then bloodier.

The next moment when you have to collect your astonished eyeballs off the rug, run them under a tap and reinsert them, is when Marvin walks into a barn where Hackman and cronies are socialising around pens full of doped-up naked girls. Herein lies the problem with Robert Dillon’s script, at least as it reached the screen. The plotline involving an orphanage furnishing its barely legal inmates to the sex trade would seem to be trying to make a point about the exploitation of women, but the film is interested in naked females’ bodies at the expense of their characters. Sissy Spacek, as Lead Naked Girl, is portrayed as having basically no mind at all, kind of a cringeworthy male fantasy of the uneducated sexpot. Her friend Janit Baldwin gets horribly gang raped offscreen, is rescued, but then totally disappears, as if she could be of no further interest to us once soiled. Spacek never displays any curiosity about her fate.

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But Dillon does admittedly keep serving up odd and memorable bits, as in the Frankenheimer mob comedy 99 & 44/100% DEAD, which he also scripted. Ritchie is right there along with him, driving into a prairie storm and lingering lovingly on a prolonged sequence in which a combine harvester eats a car, presented as a kind of automotive cannibalism. The clincher is when a great bale of grassy machinery drops out of the back of the harvester, like a vehicular stool. Half-wheat, half car, it reminded Fiona of Brundlefly’s mashed-up remains at the end of THE FLY.

Truly great Lalo Schiffrin score, archetypally beautiful/ugly 1970s lensing by Gene Polito.

Ritchie’s documentarist eye is also active, singling out grotesque bits of business, strange faces and quirks of behaviour or scenery at every turn.

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The reason for all the disgustingness is apparently an investigation, by the film, into man’s claims to being a higher organism, despite being made of meat and prone to the same base appetites as the supposedly lower animals. When a wounded thug begs Marvin to finish him off, saying, “You’d do it for a beast,” Marvin points out, “You’re a man.”

“There’s no difference.”

“Yes there is.”

Marvin walks away, leaving him to bleed out in agony — so there’s a difference between men and beasts, but it isn’t necessarily in favour of the men.

Ski Bums

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by dcairns


After enjoying SMILE so much, I resolved to watch more Michael Ritchie movies — he seemed kind of like a benign Altman. It took me a while, but I finally ran DOWNHILL RACER (1969), a movie I remember being on TV when I was a kid. I could never get into it then, and it’s obvious why when I look at it now. It’s mostly non-verbal; it doesn’t reinforce its visual moments with talk; the characters emerge very slowly; hardly anything is stated overtly; none of the characters is ingratiating. These aren’t narrative tactics calculated to appeal to a kid. Plus it was about sport, and I hate sport. But I now take the view that what a film is about, its surface subject, is irrelevant to its quality, so I watch war films and sports films if they seem interesting, despite my distaste for those particular forms of competitive activity.

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I also remember an interview where Bill Forsyth said that all stars have their self-imposed limitations, and the example he used was Robert Redford, who had never played an unsympathetic part. Well, I frequently find Redford unsympathetic but I realize I’m not meant to. But I would hold DOWNHILL RACER up as an example of RR playing a character mostly defined by negative qualities: he’s arrogant, anti-social, a dangerous driver, not a team player. He’s not a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s just a protagonist with few attractive qualities. The movie succeeds in fairly minimalist ways — we are minimally bothered about whether Redford’s pompous skier will take home the gold, but we’re sort of intrigued about what sort of a journey he’ll go on as a person, since there’s no shortage of pressure on him to reform his ways.

The lack of talk is really striking — much of what’s said is just chatter, especially that engaged in by sports commentators and journalists. The skiers exchange meaningless pleasantries. Redford fails to bond. It’s over an hour before anyone makes an actual speech. The honour falls to coach Gene Hackman. Via the DVD extras we learn that editor Richard A. Harris deliberately included some of Hackman’s slight line flubs, to emphasise the character’s emotion and to maintain the documentary realism achieved elsewhere by Ritchie in the ski footage.

The skiing is great — it is actually one of the sports I find less offensive. It happens amid pleasant scenery and it doesn’t make a lot of horrible noise, though the commentators do. Almost every other sport occurs in a horrible environment or is very loud, often both. Here, they’ve dispensed with the shonky rear projection which plagued such sequences in older movies (and some later ones, shamefully) and they have the kind of spectacular crashes which you often see on TV sports coverage but which rarely figure in movies, because movies can’t afford to break too many legs. Here, Ritchie filmed the actual races, and whenever there was a particularly painful and flamboyant tumble, they would make sure they costumed one of their actors in matching duds so they could work the sprawling athlete into their narrative.

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Ritchie understands that each skiing sequence needs to be different (as each fight is subtly different in RAGING BULL) to avoid ennui. He holds back on the amazing POV shots (wide-angle lens footage taken by their lead skier, tips of his skis in shot, snow rushing past at such velocity that by the time an ordinary mortal like you or I have taken in an onrushing bump, or a snowman, or a tree, or a small child, we would have skied right through it.

Harris cuts together really snazzy montages of preparation, too, giant closeups of tiny fastenings being adjusted, and the sound design has all these tinny tink, pting, klick sounds, which, spread apart with very soft wind underneath, create a kind of abstract, low-key suspense that’s somehow more deeply worrying than the bombastic kind (Harris also cut for James Cameron up to TITANIC).

Really nice work — pure cinema, seventies style, before the seventies had actually started. I guess in that decade, things might have ended more darkly, but the WAY in which Redford achieves his inevitable victory is really neat, and pretty dark too.

The Lone Gunman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2012 by dcairns

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Been meaning to look at Stanley Kramer’s THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE for at least a year — I had only seen the credit sequence, as a kid, on the little b&w portable TV in my bedroom. I probably retuned to THE VAMPIRE LOVERS or something rather than watch the rest, but the opening stuck with me.

That’s some sequence! The great Wayne Fitzgerald did the credits themselves, and possibly the photomontage pre-creds too. I like the super-serious VO (Why is he English?) and the fact that his paranoid rant is sometimes a bit nonsensical or awkward.

Domino from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The movie is rather fine — it just missed being included in the Late Movies Blogathon but it’s actually an exemplary case study in late career blossoming. Rather than being time-warped (which is a quality I sometimes enjoy in older filmmakers’ work) it’s very of its moment, featuring a post-JFK shadowy conspiracy that attains almost supernatural levels of omnipotence. “Let me put it this way: if THEY decided to kill both of us, right here on this bus in front of everybody, it wouldn’t be on the news tonight.”

The film moves gracefully, taking full use of 70s cinema’s expressive range, but never straining for trendiness. Kramer simply seems to have effortlessly moved with the times. His helicopter shots and zooms are fresh and inventive rather than evincing the desperation or the default-mode filmmaking one often finds in 70s genre stuff.

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Gene Hackman anchors it with his big potato face, and there’s a nice grotty support from Mickey Rooney (why does Hackman tolerate the guy’s presence?), and some vintage sneering from Richard Widmark. And there’s Eli Wallach and young Edward Albert as co-conspirators. Candice Bergen has a rather nothing role: one keeps waiting for her character to become more active: she doesn’t, and the love story doesn’t carry the wait it ought to. My favourite stuff was the crisp unfolding of the prison sequences at the start, where the plot is at its most mysterious and the characters at their least sympathetic.

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